I don’t know exactly where I first picked this up, but I think it’s generally understood among yoga teachers that it is best to avoid making overtly political statements (while teaching, at least).  I know that several of the books I read while training (and since) made this point.  We don’t want to run the risk of alienating students; we are here to serve whoever shows up to practice, regardless of beliefs or ideology.  Generally, I agree with this.  As a teacher, I am obligated to teach anyone who shows up for class, and make sure that everyone feels welcome and safe.  The point of teaching yoga is not to wave a banner or rile up my students into a frenzy of righteousness or anger.  The whole point of the practice is to CALM YOUR SHIT DOWN (Patañjali, 1:2 – translation mine, obviously).  If I’m not helping my students with that, if I’m taking actions that run counter to that, then I’ve failed, pretty much completely, as a yoga teacher.


Yoga also equips me with an understanding of right and wrong (not so much “thou shalt not,” more “work hard on avoiding these pitfalls”), and another way to fail as a teacher would be to neglect to impart this understanding to my students, or to fail to let it drive my practice both on an off the mat.  This creates a dilemma.

Over the past few weeks, I have seen images of police officers beating the stuffing out of people who have gathered to protest peacefully; I have read scornful opinion pieces about the Occupy movement in the Wall Street Journal and the vile, hateful reader comments which follow these pieces; I have thought more and more about how the deck is stacked in favour of those who need assistance the least.  And I wonder what my role is, as a yoga student, as a yoga teacher.  What I’m seeing here is wrong; clearly wrong.  Physically assaulting peaceful protesters violates the most basic principle of self-restraint in yoga:  ahimsa, non-violence.  Warping your words in such a way that you can call those who stand up in support of the vast majority your enemy violates satya, honesty.  And creating a system in which the rich get richer on the backs of the poor differs from petty thievery only in scale and deviousness; it violates asteya, not stealing.  Every time I sign in to facebook or check the news I am treated to more visions of these affronts to basic human decency.  I see them through the lens of yoga practice because that is the underpinning for my moral understanding of the world, but my interpretation is not unique to yoga.  It only requires a sense of compassion for the suffering of others.

I can’t pretend to be impartial on this.  I’m not about to start lecturing on police brutality and the failures of capitalism on those (unfortunately infrequent) occasions when I do teach a class, but neither am I going to hide the fact that I support what the protesters in Zuccotti Park are standing up for.  To hide my support would serve no one.  Yoga, as I’ve said before, is not a mild practice of spewing platitudes and pabulum; it’s fierce, and requires honesty on the part of both teachers and students.

Also, please see the open letter from Occupy Samsara.


CBC – Backbencher

There’s a new radio drama on the CBC – Backbencher. It’s about a brand spanking new MP in the House of Commons from a riding in Nova Scotia. I’m quite enjoying it so far; it doesn’t have the action/drama of Afghanada or the comedy of Canadia 2056, but it’s near sight more entertaining than Monsoon House. I can’t imagine what Backbencher’s target audience is, though; is there really a swell of interest for Canadian Parliamentary drama? I would have figured I’d be more or less the only person interested in this sort of thing.

In other news, I’m toying with the idea of combining two of my interests and writing a radio drama/comedy set in a yoga studio. I have a few rough ideas in mind, but haven’t put pen to paper yet.

Alan Chartock, WAMC

It will come as no surprise to anyone who reads this blog that I listen to a great deal of radio. I listen to conventional broadcast radio, I listen to streaming stations on-line. I listen to local stations, stations from other states, stations from other countries. I listen to music programmes, news programmes, radio drama, radio comedy, public radio, commercial radio. And I listen to some radio programmes which joyously defy any and all classification. I even had my own radio programme for about a year in college, and miss it sorely sometimes. About the only genre of radio with which I am not intimately acquainted is right-wing talk radio. So it is on no small pool of experience that I draw when I say that far and away the most obnoxious radio personality I have ever had the displeasure of listening to is Dr. Alan Chartock, president and CEO of local public radio station WAMC.

I didn’t always feel this way. Ten or fifteen years ago, when I started listening to WAMC, I had much greater tolerance for Dr. Chartock. In gross terms, after all, his political views are in concordance with my own. He, too, is a progressive lefty; supports Obama, doesn’t support the wars, &c. We also share a love of Pete Seeger’s music. The common ground between us ends there, unfortunately. I am irrevocably divorced from the cult of Chartock by the man’s own insufferable self-importance and megalomania.

Dr. Chartock’s voice is inescapable on WAMC; both literally (he is on the air almost continuously, hosting his own weekly programmes and serving as a regular commentator and co-host of other programmes) and figuratively (there are very few commentators on WAMC who do not share Dr. Chartock’s political views). I can understand, to some extent, the pervasiveness of his actual voice over the air waves. If I remember correctly from my days in the DC area, WAMU’s president was also their most regular on-air personality. Perhaps this is inherent to public radio stations in this country (or at least those devoted to commentary and news). I cannot, however, understand Dr. Chartock’s refusal to air more than the most paltry smattering of opinions contrary to his own. WAMC offers air time to a wide variety of commentators. Exactly one of them is a conservative; and even his arguments are poorly constructed and inane. It is almost as though he is retained to serve as a straw-man. This theory is not in any way discredited by the fact that during every single fund drive, Dr. Chartock parades this one conservative commentator’s brief weekly opinion pieces as evidence of his own (Dr. Chartock’s) magnanimous willingness to air other points of view. Is it really Dr. Chartock’s sole responsibility and privilege to determine who should and should not be allowed air time? WAMC is a public radio station. It is their responsibility to provide quality programming for their audience, not the palest imaginable shadow of balanced politics.

If WAMC’s lone conservative commentator were my sole complaint, it would not occur to me to accuse Dr. Chartock of egomania. Perhaps WAMC is simply catering to its audience’s interests. However, Dr. Chartock really shows his hand during his Tuesday afternoon hour-long open political forums. Callers generally fall into two categories: progressives and conservatives (reflecting WAMC’s audience and local demographics, the majority fall into the former category). Within each of these categories, there are sub-groups: conscientious callers and, for lack of a better term, wackos. Conscientious callers respectfully voice well reasoned arguments, sometimes calmly, sometimes with great passion. Wackos are generally irate and voice opinions which they are unable to support. My perspective is that both progressives and conservatives can have valuable insights to share, and should be granted air time to share them, provided that they are conscientious. In other words, callers should be screened based on their placement on the conscientious/wacko spectrum, not the progressive/conservative spectrum. This idea, however, is clearly foreign to Dr. Chartock. Progressives are permitted to voice their opinions with minimal interruptions, regardless of where they fall on the conscientious/wacko continuum. Conservatives, on the other hand, are treated to continuous interruptions from Dr. Chartock, with the result that regardless of their state of calmness at the start of the call, their level of agitation increases until Dr. Chartock cuts the call short and informs his call screener, over the air, to add the caller to The List (ie, the list of callers who are no longer permitted on air). I listen to this happen every time I tune in, and it never fails to disgust me. He even has the audacity to accuse his conservative callers of speaking from a “bully pulpit.” I believe the Yiddish word for this sort of statement is “chutzpah.”

Why do I still listen if Dr. Chartock’s antics infuriate me so? WAMC, despite the failings and egocentrism of its president, is still a quality source of local information, and I do enjoy many of its other programmes and commentators. Many years ago, though, I stopped donating to the station during fund drives because I couldn’t stand the thought of underwriting Dr. Chartock’s gigantic ego. I know many of WAMC’s other listeners enjoy listening to him berate callers with opposing viewpoints (they voice their enjoyment in their comments during the fund drives); to me, this is the cheapest sort of lions-vs-Christians entertainment. WAMC’s listeners, I believe, would be far better served by a more balanced approach. And perhaps by a change in leadership.


Some scribblings from my lunch break, after spending all morning listening to reflections on the CBC about the twenty year anniversary of the Berlin Wall:

the danger of history
is viewing the past as an inevitable series of events
like dominoes, clockwork, death.

the danger of the present
is approaching the future as an untouched canvas
open to experimentation and wild, boundless play.

Addendum:  song for today – Titanic Terrarium, the Tragically Hip

Hudson Quadricentennial Armada

As part of the quadricentennial celebrations, a motley flotilla of historic recreations – the Clearwater, the Onrust, and the Half Moon – arrived at the Rondout in Kingston last night, accompanied by booming cannons, blaring ship’s horns, and posturing local politicians. Unfortunately, I only got a decent shot of the Half Moon.

Part of me wanted to jump up on the stage, grab the microphone, and propose to the assembled crowd that we board the boats, sail north, and storm Albany, demanding that our idiot elected representatives either do their jobs or resign.


I was thinking today about nature and civilization, and how arbitrary the line between them can be. Everything ultimately was produced by natural forces, right? So is it just the act of laying human hands on something that makes it an artifact of civilization? This was touched on briefly in His Dark Materials. Perhaps a more significant distinction is our expectation of things, depending on whether we call them natural or man-made. We expect natural things (trees, forests, mountains, cockroaches) to change. They gradually come into existence, then just as gradually die away. Generally, both of these processes are happening at the same time, so like the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, it’s hard to say whether something is coming or going. Adding to the complexity, things in the natural world are in a constant state of becoming something else. A mountain is constantly being eroded by wind and water, and what was once mountain is now silt; and what was once silt is now river bed or flood plain soil. Animals are constantly playing host to myriad bacteria and fungi, which, far from parasitic, are necessary parts of the larger animal’s existence. Where do I end, and the flora in my gut begin? It’s hard to say. In nature, everything is constantly in flux, and nothing is well defined.

On the other hand, we seem to expect man-made things to exhibit a bit more consistency. Once something is made, we expect it to last. But that’s nonsense, isn’t it? It’s a basic tenet of Buddhism (and the second law of thermodynamics) that everything falls apart. Doesn’t matter if I made it, you made it, Flying Spaghetti Monster made it, or it came into existence on its own. It will, eventually, return to its most basic components. All work we do sometimes seems like a struggle against acceptance of this basic, undeniable fact.

I’ve forgotten where I was going with this… oh yes. In his speech this afternoon, President Obama talked about how it’s time for us to take responsibility and fix what’s broken. I know he’s right, but I’m embarrassed to admit that part of me would rather look for excuses. “It’s all going to fall apart anyway, so why bother?” Well… here’s why. It’s not about the end result. It’s not even remotely about the end result. It’s about the work itself. Honest work undertaken with whole hearted intention and awareness (tapas and svadhyaya for all you yogis out there) creates its own reward (isvarapranidhana), regardless of what the material consequences may be. Of course whatever we build is going to fall apart in the end. If it didn’t, it would rob us of the opportunity to rebuild it yet again.

Speaking of fixing what’s broken, I finally initiated email correspondence with my father in November. At first, I just wanted to thank him for letting me (and my sister and brother) know about his health issues, and wish him a speedy recovery. But we’ve kept emailing back and forth. We haven’t touched on any of the big issues that divided us for years. We’ve really only talked about movies, actually. But, well, I had to start the rebuilding process somewhere.

Yes We Did

I’ve been composing this in my mind since Wednesday, but I wanted to wait a few days for the exhilaration to die down before posting. I went to bed on Tuesday night before any of the networks had made an official prediction of the election winner. It looked promising, but I’d thought so in 2004 too. Also in 2000. So, with Amy Ray’s sage advice (“Don’t assume anything”) thundering across my synapses, I dropped off to sleep with hope, tremendous hope, but also tremendous trepidation. I thought it would be best if I got a good night’s sleep before steeling myself up to find out who won, and who lost.

Well, fate had other plans for me. Rather, my friend [J] had other plans. He drunk text messaged me at 1:20am with the following: “Fuck yes. Obama.” Then he drunk dialed me 30 minutes later and left a wonderfully rambling message about love, change, and the promise of a new future. I really wish I’d saved it. I would totally turn it into an MP3 and post it if I had.

For the most part, I’m quite jaded about politics, and I usually end up pulling down the lever for the candidate I think has the least capacity to harm her or his constituents. Triage voting. This time was different. It marked the first time I’d voted for a winning presidential candidate, for one thing. In 2004, I voted for Kerry; 2000, Nader (whoops!); 1996, I wrote in a vote for Colin Powell. So I guess I’ve always been an idealist. Obama is almost too good to be true, even by my idealistic standards. That speech he gave on race last spring? When the GOP was slinging about all that nonsense about Reverend Wright, like a passel of angry monkeys slinging their own shit? His speech was amazing. It brought tears to my eyes then, and it still does when I think about it. I was already an Obama supporter when I watched it, but that was the point at which I realized that he was the real thing; not just play acting the role. He didn’t mince his words. He didn’t go on the attack, and he didn’t pull punches. He said more in 30 minutes than any other leader has on that topic in decades. Look it up on YouTube and be amazed.

After the third debate, one of my yoga teachers talked about the two candidates as “warriors.” One, angry, bitter, ready to attack, unable to reign in his animosity. The other, cool, calm, reserved, letting groundless accusations and false statements slide off of him like water off a duck’s back. Words by Rudyard Kipling return to me now: “If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools…” He bore it. He bore it and smiled. Another teacher, in Wednesday night’s class, described Obama as a yogi. I don’t know if he’s ever been on a mat, but truer words were never spoken. As I’ve written elsewhere, in advanced yoga practice, the mat disappears.

Which brings me to Wednesday. Wednesday was amazing. In the morning, I watched Obama’s gracious acceptance speech, and again was moved to tears. Everyone I know, everyone I ran into, was equal parts relieved and ecstatic. Wednesday night’s yoga class was incredible. There were other factors involved, I know, but I was amazed at how much more open my body was than even the day before. My old practice, the practice I’d been accustomed to prior to slacking off last summer, was finally back. It’s astonishing to me how much tension I was carrying in my body in the weeks leading up to the election. Do you remember the scene at the end of Return of the Jedi when the Death Star has been destroyed and the Ewoks are beating out a victory song using the stormtroopers’ helmets as drums? Wednesday felt like that. Relief. Ecstasy. Release.

I will remember Wednesday as the day that I realized we’d turned “Yes We Can” into “Yes We Did.” Congratulations, President Elect Obama. Congratulations to all of us, really. We’ve waited a long time for someone of this caliber to be elected.